"The horror! The horror!" The final words of a dying Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness sadly ring true in Congo more than a hundred years later. Much has been written in recent weeks about the war in eastern Congo, with graphic and agonizing portrayals of brutality. One often feels that the war has been forgotten, though it is the deadliest conflict since World War II.
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has documented depraved incidents of sexual violence against women that have struck a chord with the American public. Celebrated playwright Eve Ensler and TV celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Anderson Cooper have brought attention to the conflict through visits and calls for action. Nobel Peace Prize nominations accumulate for admirable activists and practitioners in Bukavu and Goma, their work ranging from looted minerals used in cell phones to treatment for violence-induced fistulas and genital mutilation.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the region six months ago and wept during a meeting with rape survivors. Even the relatively languid Security Council has passed several resolutions and authorized the largest peace-keeping force in the world for the beleaguered region—currently more than 16,000 personnel. Yet the situation in terms of crimes against women remains unchanged. Why?
The militarists would argue that you need more troops and more helicopters to capture the militias. Some scholars such as Herbert Weiss have argued that the Congolese army needs to be "professionalized" so it can protect its borders. Would law enforcement solve the problem? Perhaps the various militias could be apprehended by sending troops to break the mineral cartels that fuel the militants.
A women's police force, as suggested by Secretary Clinton, would be especially useful in establishing a tenuous calm. But would the violence against women that has so horrified Oprah's viewers stop with such arrests? Sadly, the answer may still be "No," for the scourge of violence against women runs much deeper.
Even without a war, rape rates in South Africa are such that it is more likely for a girl to be raped in her life than for her to finish a graduate degree. One-fourth of South African men admitted to raping a woman in a survey conducted by the country's Medical Research Council in 2009. It is high time the international community confront the elephant in the room when talking about Congo and many other conflicts and social ills worldwide—culture.
Before you start hurling accusations of prejudice, pause and consider that I use the term "culture" at multiple levels to suggest a worldwide tendency toward tribalism within organizations and societies alike. First, there needs to be an acknowledgment that most human societies have shared in the common misfortune of crimes against women but some have been able to overcome this dark past faster than others.
Sadly, many African societies still have a male-dominant culture where practices such as polygamy are accepted at the highest level of authority. While women can have some influence in confined social settings, they are often conceived as objects of reproductive and ornamental value, leading to a tacit acceptance of abuse against them. There is also a particular emphasis on male displays of vigor that desensitizes many men to human suffering. Such attitudes are shared by other societies as well, particularly some orthodox religious communities.
As an Asian American, I would concede that there are indeed systemic cultural factors within traditional South Asian cultures, in both Hindu and Muslim manifestations, which make it very difficult to change the demographics of crimes against women. When the largest peace-keeping contingent of the UN force in Congo are from South Asia—more than half of the soldiers are from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh—the situation is further compounded.
The problem of cultural conformity on such issues permeates women just as much as men. For example, in one study [PDF] of domestic violence conducted by Sunita Kishor and Kiersten Johnson, 91 percent of women in Zambia and 70 percent in India believed that wife-beating is justified for at least one reason (often for infidelity).
Culture also plays a negative role at the level of international policy. Any attempts to put pressure on African states with regard to mineral smuggling are rebuffed by African leaders on the pretext of "neocolonialism." The situation in Congo is complicated by the reluctance of African states to call their fellow leaders to account lest it be considered as a concession to the West. The relatively effective Kimberley Process for certifying diamonds is threatened now by this kind of elite tribalism among leaders of the continent.
The good news is that culture can indeed change, though it often requires a concerted campaign of activism and pressure to transform cultures from the grassroots. Africa has many wonderful local activists who are endeavoring to bring about such change, but they need to be empowered with clear messages from the international community that disparage the excuse of cultural relativism and are resilient against vacuous accusations of prejudice.
Educational access for women and men alike is a critical component of such a transformation. Laws, too, must be changed in many African states to dismantle misogynistic practices. For example, in the Central African Republic it is still legal to take "witches" to court. Several hundred women have been subjected to this institutional lunacy at the behest of culture. The African Union should address these issues head-on, while the West should not feel coy about holding leaders to account for such institutional and educational reforms as a precondition for aid packages.
Cultural changes often take root over a generation or more, as they did in much of Europe and North America. Violence against women is still a major problem in the West but at least there are numerous institutions to cope with the issue and hold perpetrators accountable. Cultural excuses can no longer be used by males to justify subjugation of women in most Western countries.
Even with such efforts, some hearts of darkness will go on beating in all human societies, but through a clear acceptance of cultural culpability we can reduce the chance that its influence will dominate conflicts such as Congo.
Saleem H. Ali is associate professor of conflict resolution and environmental planning at the University of Vermont and the author of Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future.